Father’s Day is often the time to reflect on the gifts our fathers gave us. My father gave me my love of detective fiction.
An avid reader, he kept books of history, economics and detective novels stacked high on his night table, from which I shamelessly pilfered in my teens. I usually chose detective novels. Drawn by suggestive covers, I fell for the book’s tough guy heroes. Men such as Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and Travis McGee. Physically powerful men. Men who could give or take a beating, and who used their strength to vanquish the bad guys.
My father was a tough guy, too. But not like the fictional detectives we both loved. My father had a rarer form of toughness — an inner strength. Born with hemophilia, the incurable, inherited disease that disables the ability of blood to clot, my father lived much of his life in pain. Hemophiliacs suffer from internal and external bleeding, bruising, joint pain and swelling. In my father’s case, the joints in his legs and arms became so swollen that they could barely bend.
To a casual observer, my father’s disability wasn’t evident. He was a big man, 6 feet, 2 inches tall and about 230 pounds. A closer look, however, revealed his bent arms and stiff-legged gait, which in my childhood reminded me of Frankenstein. When my father moved to New York City in his youth, physicians there said he would soon lose the use of his legs. He walked his entire life, albeit with difficulty. In his final years, unable to walk up the stairs to the second floor of my parent’s apartment, he crawled. He never suggested moving.
My father’s amiable personality was at odds with the pain he suffered. He was quick to smile, had a lively sense of humor and picked up friends the way most people pick up coffee at Starbuck’s. Given his disposition, it was hard to believe that a river of pain coursed through his life. The pain from his bouts of internal bleeding often began without warning and might last for days. And for most of his life, there was no relief. Despite my father’s life-long battle with pain, I never heard him complain or ask why me?
One respite for my father was driving. In the car he could, for once, move as fast as anyone else. When my family moved from northern New Jersey to Los Angeles, my father insisted on driving the entire way, with me and my brother in tow. During that trip, watching the nation’s landscape go by as we racked up the miles in his big Buick, I knew my father felt free. Free from his physical limitations. As free perhaps, as he felt reading detective novels, whose stories carried him far from the slings and arrows of life.
At 64 he contracted an infectious disease from an injection of contaminated blood product, which was to treat his internal bleeding. My family suspected the contamination was HIV, another era’s deadly virus, but it was never confirmed. After several weeks in the hospital it became clear he would never leave. The last tough guy book my father read was “The Good Old Stuff,” a collection of early John D. MacDonald short stories. It lay unfinished on his hospital bed when he was moved to the intensive care unit. The book now sits in my library.
In the intensive care unit he deteriorated quickly. Nurses tied a respirator to his face, and strapped his arms and legs to the bed, afraid he would rip out the tubes to the machines that kept him alive. Mostly alone and unable to communicate, he could have succumbed to self-pity and hopelessness. But he didn’t. He stared death in the face and didn’t flinch, sustained to the last by his inner toughness and the love of his family.
My father was no saint. Nobody is. Among his faults was a frequent neglect of financial obligations. But that all-too human failing cannot negate his gift to me. My father gave me more than a love of detective novels; he gave me what every father should give his children: an example of how to live.